Not ready to break ground
Early findings show promising results, yet mining in La Plata Canyon a way off
After more than 100 years, could full-scale mining return to La Plata Canyon? One Canadian company that has been prospecting the area for the past three years says it’s generating promising results, though any possible major mining operation is years off.
“We wouldn’t continue our activity if we weren’t seeing encouraging results,” Greg Johnson, president of Metallic Minerals, said in an interview last week. “But we’re many years away from developing a mine; we’re in the exploration stage, and that takes years of systematic scientific work.”
In 2019, Metallic Minerals announced an ambitious plan to explore more than 8,000 acres of a mining claim in La Plata Canyon. Ever since, the company has been drilling holes to investigate the potential deposits in the mountains and even acquired new areas to explore.
La Plata Canyon, a relatively contained mountain range just west of Durango, experienced a lucrative yet short-lived mining boom in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Metallic Minerals, however, has maintained that new technology could revive the region.
The few full-time residents that call La Plata Canyon home, however, have expressed concerns that mining’s return could have negative environmental impacts.
“We’ve been concerned since they started,” Tom Miller, who bought property in the canyon in 1998, said.
All these concerns about a full-fledged mine may be years, perhaps decades, off, Johnson said. Still, the company’s findings in the canyon continually justify the decision to dedicate more money and resources into exploration.
Don’t call it a comeback
At the turn of the century, La Plata Canyon was a bustling hub of mining activity, the scars of which can be seen to this day. Around the 1940s, however, most mines folded and closed up shop, and there has been no major commercial operation ever since.
But that hasn’t stopped prospectors over the years from dreaming about the resources that remain in the mountains. Several companies and individuals have touted the potential of precious minerals in La Plata Canyon, though nothing has ever materialized.
Metallic Minerals, which specializes in the exploration and development of mining claims, first started drilling exploratory holes in summer 2020. The specific claim is called the Allard, located up a steep western slope, across from the La Plata City Campground.
For the past three years, those initial explorations produced encouraging results to inspire the company to continue its operation – and its investment, Johnson said. But, he made a point to emphasize these are still early days.
“At this stage, we’re still trying to assess what’s there,” he said.
However, early results, Johnson said, show the potential for copper, silver, gold and other critical minerals, which the U.S. Geological Survey defines as “necessary for the manufacture of high technology devices, national defense applications and green growth-related industries.”
But, even the potential for mining’s return has some residents concerned.
Miller, whose property is closest to the drilling operations, said many companies and people have tried to revive mining in La Plata Canyon over the years. Metallic Minerals’ effort, however, feels different, he said.
“We have people putting stakes out here all the time,” Miller said. “But (Metallic Minerals) is putting more money into it than your average hobby miner. It’s just concerning, given the level of investment.”
Miller expressed the oft-repeated concerns whenever a new mine is proposed – impacts to water quality and groundwater, possible contamination, increased traffic and an overall impact to the quality and character of the landscape.
“I know they’re just exploring, but it becomes a much bigger concern if it progresses to mining,” Miller said. “And they’re putting a lot of money into it, so they must think it’s going somewhere.”
Vince Meunier, another resident in the canyon, said neighbors held a community meeting this fall to get more organized.
“The community is unaware of the permits that have been given and the serious possibility of active larger-scale mining happening in the canyon,” he said. “I think it is very important for the local community to become aware of this and to try to do something to stop it from happening.”
Under the microscope
Russ Means, an environmental specialist with Colorado’s Department of Mining, Reclamation and Safety, said Metallic Minerals is in good standing with all the state’s permitting processes and posted state-required financial warranties and reclamation bonds for its work in La Plata Canyon.
Means said site visits to where Metallic Minerals is drilling has shown the company is also following regulations.
Lynn Hyde, Community Development Director for La Plata County, also said Metallic Minerals is in good standing. In contrast to years past, Metallic Minerals will have to submit a feasibility process form to determine whether the company needs a land-use permit before starting work in 2023, Hyde said.
Should the time come for a full-on mine, that would kick off a years-long process of studies, public hearings and reviews that would involve a host of agencies: DRMS, La Plata County, Forest Service and others.
“We’re only one part of oversight,” Means said. “There’s a whole process for federal land, state permits, local county approval for anyone to get a permit to mine in Colorado. It’s an extensive process.”
Just taking a look
Metallic Minerals is an exploration company, which means it investigates the potential of a mining claim and builds a portfolio it can use to entice actual mining companies. That can take years, Johnson said, as is the case in La Plata Canyon.
Early findings showed an estimated 1.21 million pounds of copper and 17.6 million ounces of silver – findings that can be used to lure investors for continued funding on exploration and ultimately a mining company.
“We’re looking for concentrations (of resources) to find economic justification,” Johnson said. “That’s the tough part after first discovery – finding something with high enough concentration to draw interest. And our explorations show we have something interesting.”
As a result of all the intricacies, there’s no way to put a timeline on the project, he added. But, he said the metals that could be mined could help with the green energy transition. And, he said mining is far more regulated and environmentally conscious than years past.
“It’s a very different mining industry today than the turn of the century, and that’s a good thing,” he said. “Colorado has a long history of mineral development, and if we can develop it responsibly and with high environmental standards, that’s good for the economy and environment.”
But those promises do little to allay residents’ concerns. Just this past year, Miller noticed a significant increase in activity on the site. (Johnson said that’s because the company drilled four holes as opposed to the two in 2022, effectively doubling activity in the area.)
“Past studies have shown the ore quality is low and marginally worth it,” Miller said. “I’m crossing my fingers that this is still the case, but it makes you nervous. We’ll keep watching it closely.”